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Another Cruel Lesson

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The clang of metal against metal rang through the air like a bell. Setting his hammer aside for a moment, Thorin wiped the sweat from his eyes, turned the glowing-hot blade over, and began pounding the other side into shape. Then he cursed as the metal cooled far too quickly in the late-autumn chill pouring into the front room of the smithy.

Normally, Thorin worked in the back by the forges where the breeze didn't touch, but his sister had gone off early this morning to visit a sick friend of hers on the other side of the mountain and left her sons in his care. Since the boys were too young to stay home alone, Thorin had had no choice but to bring them along to work. He'd let them bother Dwalin for a while, careful to keep them far from the forges and the heated metal, then, when his old friend began to look as if he was contemplating misusing his hammer, turned them loose with strict instructions to stay within earshot. The smithy opened into the wide town square, which was crowded with children of dwarves and men alike, and there was only so much trouble they could get into there… hopefully. Fili and Kili ran by sometimes, but were mostly out of sight, and Thorin was beginning to wish he was in the back room – the rhythmic pounding of hammers was nothing compared to the high-pitched voices of the children shouting outside. He was rapidly developing a brutal headache.

The proximity did have its benefits, though, when the sounds of lighthearted shouting and cavorting outside were split with a shrill, terrified, familiar shriek.

Almost before his brain had properly registered that it was his nephew screaming, Thorin dropped his hammer, though not the sword – it was sized for men and unsharpened, but it would do in a pinch – and in three strides was in the square. At first, he saw nothing but the same scene he always saw, but then he noticed a few people glancing into the alley between a tavern and the smithy and shaking their heads, tutting, a woman murmuring, "Boys, always fighting…." Still gripping the sword's hilt tightly, Thorin swung around the corner and abruptly paused, surprised by the scene before him.

It wasn't the first time he'd caught Fili brawling. There had always been a rather playful quality to his fights – wrestling matches between friends turned a bit more serious, often – but his nephew had pinned this boy to the ground and was mercilessly pummeling him, snarling words he hadn't learnt from his mother between his teeth, rage lending a wildness to his blows that Thorin had never seen before –

Thorin grabbed Fili by the scruff and bodily lifted him away. The other dwarf, who was unknown to him, gaped with a wide, bloody mouth. At the sight of Thorin Oakenshield looming in front of him, glowering wordlessly, nephew's collar in one hand and still-hot sword in the other, the young dwarf scrambled to his feet and rabbited down the alleyway without a backwards look.

"If you ever come near my little brother again, I'll rearrange your teeth!" Fili howled after him, struggling in his uncle's grasp. Then he added a few filthy Khuzdul epithets that he'd most likely picked up from Dwalin. Thorin lightly swatted him across the back of the head (those were not words he should be using until he understood the acts he was so vulgarly referencing), but Fili didn't even seem to notice.

It was almost unsettling – Thorin hadn't known that much wrath could twist Fili's face. Usually, his elder nephew was the calm, level-headed, compassionate one – all excellent qualities in a future king – but occasionally there was a flash of temper that even rivaled some of the tantrums Thorin remembered Dis throwing as a child. His clenched fingers were tight, split knuckles smeared with blood, stiff arms trembling. He did not, however, show any inclination towards chasing the other dwarf down, so Thorin spared only a moment on him and then turned his attention elsewhere.

Kili had not yet budged from his position, curled in a little ball with his back to the crumbling brick wall. One of his fists was pressed to the side of his head, as if to cover a wound, and his round eyes were focused on his brother. Those eyes looked a bit too glassy for Thorin's liking. He quickly knelt and set the sword aside, reaching to cup his hand around Kili's. "Are you hurt?"

"That bastard knocked him down –"

"Quiet," Thorin said sharply. Where Fili's recent, unnecessary habit of talking for his brother had come from, Thorin had no idea – given the opportunity, Kili would talk constantly and at length about anything and everything – but he was seeking to nip it in the bud. "Let me see," he said, more gently, as he pried Kili's hand away from his head.

He had expected blood, or at least a painful lump. What he found instead sent an anger hotter than any forge boiling in his belly.

"– and cut his hair."

Thorin didn't bother silencing Fili again. He was too busy staring at the ragged edges of Kili's hair, where a chunk as wide as Thorin's wrist had been hacked off not far from the scalp, and feeling the urge to harm a child for the first time since he was a child himself. Cutting another dwarf's hair without permission was the ultimate insult, imparting a humiliation more complete than any words could accomplish. And to see such a thing done to his nephew-!

The only thing stopping him from marching off, finding that dwarf boy's parents, and demanding to know what they were teaching their son to make him think assaulting one of Thorin's heirs was acceptable, was the sound Kili made as he opened his tiny fist and watched a few salvaged strands of dark hair drift to the dirt. Swallowing his fury, Thorin slid his fingers beneath Kili's chin and tipped his face up to look at him closely. "Are you hurt?" he repeated.

Kili shook his head. The distant glaze in his eyes had disappeared, only to be replaced by a more common glimmer. Satisfied that he was uninjured, Thorin caught him under the arms, stood, and swept him up onto his shoulder before the boy could start crying.

Fili was still glaring at the road beyond the end of the alley like he expected the dwarf to return for another round. "I'll wring his rotten neck…" he muttered, fingers twitching as though they itched to do just that. Then he yipped like a hound as he found himself unexpectedly swung into the air and settled on Thorin's other shoulder.

"Enough," Thorin told him firmly. Carefully steadying them, he turned and headed back towards the square. It wouldn't be long before this balancing act would be impossible – both boys were taller every time Thorin turned around, and soon they'd be old enough to protest this treatment – and he felt an odd pang when he realized that. It was so much easier to protect them while they were children. Not that he'd done a great job of that today… Dis was going to have his head when she saw what had been done to her son's beautiful hair.

"Rovi!" he called when he came around to the front of the building. The dwarf in question glanced up from the tiny dagger he was sharpening. "Tell Dwalin I'm taking the boys home." As soon as Rovi nodded, Thorin was off, striding down the street and paying no attention to the milling townsfolk. He also ignored Kili's occasional sniffle until he felt the boy's face press into his hair, and then he quietly said, "Hold your head up, Kili. Do not let them see you cry."

"I can't do both," Kili muttered with barely a fraction of his usual obstinacy, but he did lift his head again and scrub a sleeve across his eyes furiously.

"Good," Thorin murmured. "Tell me what happened."

Kili took one of his uncle's braids in hand, ran his fingers over the sweat-damp weaving. "He called me 'elf-spawn'," he mumbled.

Thorin bristled, tightening his hold on both his nephews even though they were comfortably balanced. He'd caught wind of such slights towards his youngest nephew before – Kili was unusually delicate-looking for a dwarf, and while the worst of the bullying was generally restricted to childish name-calling, Thorin had once heard a dwarf well into his cups suggesting that the boy's dainty features were the result of an unwise coupling between Dis and an elf. That dwarf hadn't come back to the mountains since, and Thorin wasn't allowed into that particular tavern anymore. He'd not heard the same spite leveled towards his other nephew - if Fili was ever picked on for being as fair-haired as a Lorien elf, he didn't complain of it within Thorin's hearing. But Fili had inherited his coloring from his grandmother, a dwarf with hair the color of molten gold who was widely considered to have been stunningly lovely. Kili, on the other hand, resembled Frerin so strongly that sometimes it hurt Thorin to look at him.

"Ow!" Kili squeaked, and it took a moment for Thorin to realize his fingers were digging deep into Kili's hip. He hastily loosened his grip. Dis had told Kili many times that he would look more dwarfish as he grew, the way some lucky children did, but Kili's face had remained stubbornly fine-boned for years. He needed to toughen up soon, or the taunts that would likely follow him into adulthood might never cease to wound.

"Fili," Thorin said, twisting his neck to look up at the boy, "you'll have to start letting your brother fight his own battles."

Fili scowled at him. "Mattuck is twice his size. He would've sheared him like a sheep!" he exclaimed, and Thorin suppressed a wince as Kili's grip on his braided hair grew painful. "Did you want me to just –"

"No," Thorin interrupted. He would never tell either of them not to protect one another with their lives, but Kili couldn't expect his brother to be there to defend him all the time. "You did well today. But there will always be people who want to hurt you, and if you let them know they've succeeded, they'll never stop. I expect you both to stand up for yourselves and not show weakness."

Kili whispered "I'm sorry, Uncle," so quietly Thorin almost didn't hear him.

"I'm not angry with you. He should never have dared to harm you like that. Next time anyone does –"

"Next time, kick him between the legs and run," Fili advised. Thorin felt an elbow bump the back of his head as Fili reached over to stroke his brother's hair. "Or just bite him," he added darkly. "You're good at biting."

Kili sighed, folded an arm across the top of Thorin's head, and rested his cheek on it. Thorin suspected he was sucking his thumb again – a habit he was much too old to be indulging, and one they'd meant to break him of long ago, but this was hardly the time for scolding. Besides, they were nearly home.

They'd hardly crossed the threshold when Fili began squirming to be let down. Thorin set him on his feet, shoulder grateful for the reprieve, and the boy hesitated for a moment before running off to the little bedroom he shared with his brother. Kili, on the other hand, just clung harder, so Thorin shifted him down to his hip, held him there as he stoked the fire. If he was honest with himself, he wasn't quite ready to let go either. But Kili was snuffling again, and Thorin was at a loss for how to comfort him. He shifted his nephew a bit higher and quietly said, "You are descended from kings, Kili, and you may yet be a king yourself someday. Never forget that."

"I'm not gonna be king," Kili mumbled, face buried in Thorin's shoulder. "Fili's gonna be king."

"If something happens to your brother, the duty will fall to you."

"Nothing'll happen to him," Kili said with innocent certainty, "Fili can beat up anybody."

If only the greatest evils in the world were childish bullies.

Fili came back then, laden down with the box of intricately carved toys from Bifur's workshop, which he set on the hearth and opened. He caught Kili's attention when he began setting up the tiny dwarf soldiers in neat little lines, and Thorin had no choice but to release his wriggling nephew. It was a relief to see the hurt erased from his face – Kili might've been too young to understand exactly how deeply the other dwarf had been trying to shame him by cutting his hair, but there was no mistaking the malice behind the action. Still, within minutes the boys were all smiles and laughter, chasing one another around the room and playing Ranger (a very odd game where they mostly just threw things at one another and hid beneath furniture). As long as Kili didn't again start expressing a desire to actually run off and be a Ranger when he was older, Thorin was content to let it continue as he prepared a meal.

The missing locks of hair weren't quite so obvious if one wasn't looking for them, he decided as he narrowly missed stepping on his younger nephew – the shortened edges would be all but invisible if they were braided into the rest of his hair, but Kili disliked braids, complaining they were heavy and pulled at his scalp, and Dis let him go without to avoid a fuss. They did coddle him a bit too much sometimes. The world was a harsh place, and eventually the boys would have to learn how to handle being hated and mocked and mistreated with pride.

Nevertheless, when Kili ducked behind his legs, giggling wildly and pleading for protection from the evil dragon hunter (who was draped in his mother's cloak and looking rather less than frightening), Thorin wished there were not so many cruel lessons he would have to teach them.